Table Talk: Elysium (2013)

The following discussion contains spoilers for Elysium, so be warned.

Anton: The obvious starting point for our conversation is District 9 — that strange, manically inventive sci-fi flick by that South African guy with a name just a bit off that made a huge profit while scoring some Oscar nods back in 2009. Moving from mockumentary to all-out actioner, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was one of those rare summer blockbusters that seem to only be made when someone lets an outsider or madman into the factory. In comparison, one of the big complaints I’m hearing about Elysium is that it is too conventional.

Aren: Its conventional in its unlikely-saviour narrative, yes, but I believe the letdown is more a matter of expectation than execution. District 9 was mind-blowing in how it combined genres, how it jumped from a slapstick pseudo-documentary scene into an explosive gun fight complete with mechs and aliens getting blown up. But its ideas and its narrative were not that original. District 9’s saviour narrative is actually very similar to Elysium’s, except for in the former film, the saviour is literally turned into one of the subjugated aliens he’s trying to help.

Elysium has a poor guy who is initially in it for himself and ends up sacrificing himself to save everyone else. It’s predictable, but I was fairly satisfied by the film’s ending, and more than a little moved. Strangely, narratively, Elysium reminded me of Oz: The Great and Powerful, where the reluctant hero is tasked with becoming the world’s saviour, and ends up beating the oppressive villainess who is torturing the land. Except in this film, the hero doesn’t survive and the world is a bit bleaker, which leads me to my next point.

I think where Elysium is an unqualified success is in its world-building. At least on the apocalyptic Earth, everything seems to have been that way for a while, and the technology is commonplace and ordinary. Its cyberpunk filmmaking, where the incredibly decrepit and the incredibly advanced coexist side-by-side.

Anton: The film definitely presents a realistic, lived-in world, like Blade Runner. For instance, I love the details of the technology, such as the little brain icons showing the transfer of data from brain to brain. My complaint is that the focus is too narrow. I should say, I don’t have a problem with choosing a narrow focus, but here it jars with the world-altering pretensions of the narrative. There is this incongruity between the film’s detailed yet limited focus on one scuzzy LA slum in the mid-22nd century, and film’s desire to also be about the state of the whole world. I fear it’s largely a product of Hollywood’s escalation-intensification machine that Damon Lindelof has recently admitted to, and which I’m pretty sure every one of our readers can sense behind most of this summer’s catch.

Aren: Yeah, it’s not enough for the stakes to matter on a personal level these days. The ramifications have to be universal. This has been the case for every blockbuster this year. It’s tiring.

Anton: Everything has to be “epic.” There’s a similar incongruity between the powerful control the elites subject everyone on Earth to and the relatively unimpressive capabilities of Elysium’s (the space station’s) defences. On the one hand, the film is great at showing how Matt Damon’s Max just can’t get ahead. The system prevents it. On the other hand, a ganglord in this LA slum seems to regularly send ships to illegally land on Elysium. Why don’t the elites and their droids just blast them out of the sky with cannons or gunships? Do they really need an undercover operative who must uncover secret weapon caches to shoot them down from the planet’s surface?

Aren: I found that kind of bizarre as well. But I just assumed Blomkamp wanted to get Kruger in there quickly and introduce what a marvelously assholish bastard he is as soon as possible.

Anton: You’re right, I’m starting to sound like nitpicker. Let this be a warning to you readers: if you are the kind of person who questions every action onscreen, judging whether it’s “realistic,” don’t see Elysium. But I don’t think it’s chiefly a product of shoddy writing; rather, it’s the allegorical emphasis of the film. Blomkamp and the other writers are more interested in creating opportunities to address illegal immigration, and secret extra-legal operations, and restrictions to universal health care, than in creating a fortress of plausibility.

On the topic of the allegorical social commentary, some critics are complaining that it’s not subtle enough. Well, you know what? There’s nothing subtle about people living in squalor or working a shitty job, or, for that matter, a grenade mangling a face that is later science-fictionally reconstructed, or Matt Damon having a robotic exoskeleton drilled into his body so he can kick some ass. This isn’t a subtle movie. Deal with it. I’m fine with the frenetic and blunt qualities of the film. In the words of Peter Travers, this movie is “balls-to-the-walls” action.

Aren: It’s a common trait of allegories to be blunt. To complain about the bluntness is kind of missing the point. The writer would say, “Of course it’s blunt! It was meant to be blunt.” Allegories have to be upfront so that the audience doesn’t mistake the meaning. This film isn’t last year’s Killing Them Softly where the allegory is always lingering in the background, obscuring the story when it should be playing directly into it. Here the allegory is the story. Damon is the white hero who realizes the necessity of breaking down the corrupt system that is saying some people are worth keeping alive and some people are not. It’s not exactly subtle storytelling, but the sentiments have an appropriately emotional drive to them. Makes you care about the characters and really hate the bad guys.

Sci-fi often gets a pass at projecting some kind of progressive agenda, because apparently any critics of the message would be too dumb to parse through the blatant allegory and get at the message. It’s a cool tradition that sci-fi stories have, where they can comment on our present in more critical ways than other genres. Like, this is essentially a 100-million-dollar action film about illegal immigration and universal healthcare. Weird.

Anton: The film’s direct style is actually somewhat refreshing when it comes to socio-economic critiques in mainstream film. This film doesn’t waver. It says straight out: the one percent are the bad guys. Wall-E was slow and subtle and in the end it didn’t have the guts to blame humanity straight out; humanity was flawed in that film, but the real bad guy was the computer that took over. In Elysium, the rich people are bad. Period. I’m not saying that’s exactly the situation in real life, but it’s a provocative statement coming from a studio film, and I don’t think the film’s getting much credit for its bold, clear message. Where things go after the film’s ending, with a gangster in charge of the droids, is less clear, and definitely problematic though.

Aren: If I can make a bit of an aside regarding that particular gangster, named Spider and played by Wagner Moura, I thought he was a pretty marvelous scene-stealer with a not-exactly selfish agenda. He’s in it for money, but he also seems to relish the chance to change things up on Elysium. When push comes to shove, he picks people over profit. Although, I do kind of understand some people’s criticisms saying that why couldn’t a character like Spider, or Max’s friend Julio played by Diego Luna, be the hero? If we’re going to have events in the predominantly Latin American LA slums, with the love interest a Latin American, why isn’t the hero Latin American?

Anton: Because most heroes are still white in Hollywood films. Sadly, those seem to still be the rules of the game.

The film’s lack of subtlety also allows for the absolutely ridiculous, incredibly irritating yet captivating henchman Kruger played by Sharlto Copley. I can’t remember the last villain I saw who was so downright vile.

Aren: He was vile and kind of awesome.

Anton: Like, there’s that brief, ridiculous scene where he’s roasting meat with a samurai sword and swearing and tossing beer bottles at the people down on the street below. It’s so outrageous, unexpected, and unnecessary that I loved it!

Aren: I love that scene! It’s such a throwaway — he could have received news of his dismissal anywhere — but by having it, it adds such a peculiar touch to the character. It tells us early that this is no ordinary psychopath. Copley just tears up the screen here. His disgusting low-class Afrikaans accent rips through his filthy lines. His energy on-screen is infectious. It’s like he’s personally providing much of the energy in the action scenes. He’s manic. He’s insane, but can also be kind of endearing in an incredibly creepy way with his lullabies and no-nonsense disgustingness. It’s a hyperbolic comparison, but I can get where people are coming from when they say he seems to be channeling Heath Ledger’s Joker. In the same way, Copley dominates this film. His presence is felt even when he’s not on screen.

Anton: All credit to Copley. He’s barely made any movies, and yet after each of his film’s with Blomkamp, people can’t stop talking about him. On the topic of acting, I don’t actually think Foster was that great. I found her accent a bit off. Maybe she just can’t compare with the vivid, horrendous accent of Sharlto Copley.

Aren: Apparently Foster’s accent was originally French. Previews at Comic-Con and the sort had her sporting a French accent, but that was changed in post, so as not to offend the French, perhaps?

Anton: Odd. Some reviews says it’s Afrikaans, but at first I thought French, because her name is Delacourt. The confusion points to what I’m saying: there’s something a touch off about her delivery, and performance overall. The way she holds her jaw in the film. Maybe because she’s working on the accent? Oh shit, I’m nitpicking again!

Aren: Whatever she’s doing, it’s a distractingly affected performance. Sadly, I fear the days of Foster being one of our great actresses is far in the past. The other actors in the film fared better. Damon is playing a very conventional role, but he makes us feel for Max. Max is such a self-interested individual, it was necessary to have a star as likable as Matt Damon play him. Not only does it help sell the film, but it makes him likable in ways the character as written isn’t. Take out the flashbacks, which I think are my biggest problem with the film, and the character portrayal is quite negative. But Damon sells the hero aspects.

Anton: For me, Elysium embodies a blunt, rough, potentially dangerous imagination that I didn’t see in the summer’s other, slicker, tamer blockbusters. But it also contains the pretensions and compulsive desire to magnify and intensify that is currently crippling mainstream action-adventure cinema.

Aren: I’m satisfied by Elysium, but it didn’t blow me away like I wanted it to. Some of the filmmaking and action on screen feels fresh, but as a narrative whole, it lacks the immediate impact of District 9. Still, for a summer where some of the big blockbusters have been overwhelming in effects and underwhelming in impact, Elysium seems fresh. It’s straightforward, it’s gritty, it knows what it is and knows what it wants to get across. It’s also under two hours and lacks post-converted 3D, so I give it credit for leanness. Ultimately, in a summer of excess, Elysium is the kind of trim sci-fi heroics I’d like to see more of.

Elysium (2013/USA)

Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp; starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, and William Fichtner.